Damien Dempsey talks to Michael McDonagh about his plans for celebrating St Patrick’s Day in London
Damien Dempsey, a former boxer from Dublin, follows in a long tradition of Irish singers such as Luke Kelly, Ronnie Drew, Christy Moore, and Andy Irvine, unafraid to tackle contentious subjects and able to sing about them with emotion and integrity. He has had a remarkable career since he released his first album in 2000.
He is one of those rare singer-songwriters who, wearing his heart on his sleeve, sings songs of passion and concern for the underprivileged, downtrodden and deprived. His second album Seize The Day, released nearly fifteen years ago in May 2003 entered the charts in its first week of release at No. 5 and he has since achieved double-platinum sales, putting Damien on the map as one of Ireland’s most successful and popular contemporary songwriters and performers.
I went to meet him on a cold snowy day at Producer John Reynolds’ Aer Studios in Kilburn, prior to his tour and performance at the Roundhouse on St Patrick’s Day.
As someone who remembers The Sixties, when we were awash with protest songs, I asked Damien if he thought the protest song is a thing of the past and there’s no passion left in music?
“I think it is still there, you just have to look for it a bit more, maybe it is in a different form. It is so hard to get on the radio now or a record deal, especially if you are singing about something protest-y. They don’t want to know. The music you hear on the radio is so different now, so formulaic and it is all about image and there is not much variety.
When your first album Seize The Day came out there was a song in which you mentioned your heroes and included in them Christy Moore. How has your own career developed since then?
“I had put out my first album but it got nowhere and I was out in the wilderness, then I got a tour with the Hot House Flowers in the UK and they were friends with the producer John Reynolds, who I did not know.
“I was at a party and was in the kitchen minding me beer and John was there and I got talking to him. He said in conversation he made records, then three months later I was in Dublin and got a call, it was John who said ‘It’s John. Do you want to come and make a record in my bedroom?’
“I came over and stuck down a bunch of songs then went back to Dublin and a few weeks later he sent me this CD that had Sinead O’Connor singing on it and beautiful cellos playing on it with Caroline Dale, the best cello player in the world, on it. He did an incredible job.”
Like so many other talented young musicians Damien went to Ballyfermot College, how significant a start was that?
“It definitely helped me as I did not really know anybody or have people around me playing music but when I was there I got to meet people and work with them, who were like-minded. I met this guy Dave Murphy, who was mixed race musician from the Liberties and at one time it was only him and Phil Lynott as the only two black fellas in Dublin but now it is great the influx of people from all over the world into Ireland.”
As someone interested in history Damien seized the opportunity to do a special album to mark the 1916 Centenary.
“I did not have an album deal at the time. I had done five albums for Sony but then they got into this 360 degree thing when they wanted a share of the tee-shirt sales and a share of the gig money as well, so that was not on.
“We left and had no deal. So I wanted to do an album to come out in 2016 and wanted to mark it then I found out that my great aunt was involved. My granny was always talking about her as she was head of the women’s section of the Irish Citizens Army. I wrote a song about her because there were over two hundred women involved in the Rising.”
You have an association with Morrissey. How did that come about? Was it because you had been a boxer?
“Ha! He liked the boxing background, he liked that story alright but I came to meet him because a cousin of his, I think, in Dublin had one of my albums and told him about me. Anyway he got in touch and he put me on tour with him. We are working here on a collaborations project and are trying to get him on it. I was actually singing for him last week. He said his mother comes to see me – not him. I sing at after-show parties for him and his mother loves all the auld ballads.”
Your sixth studio album, Almighty Love, was a different sort of album, less angry. Are you mellowing as you get older?
“Yeah. I had travelled a lot more and was getting into the spiritual side of things. I am getting a bit more mellow and into the spiritual side of things and nature. I’m doing a bit of meditation and yoga and I am eating better, more vegetables and fish and organic kale and a lot of green stuff which is better for me. I’m just changing my way a bit.
“I was getting into the spiritual side of things which may explain why that album was a bit different. I’m 42 now and feeling a bit more mellow, definitely, and getting into nature a bit more and the sea and getting deeper and deeper.
How would you describe your music?
“My music is really Urban Folk or Irish Soul, it is all about healing, there is a lot of healing in my music.”
On the subject of healing, Damien recently had to cancel some shows because he had to have an operation on his nose for allergic rhinitis.
“That f***ing thing. My septum was separating, probably because of the boxing, so I took time out to have it operated on and fixed and now with the saline rinse treatments that I do every day my voice is actually better. I’m singing better.
You’ve met and worked with some very big names, what have been the highlights?
“Oh it HAS to be Christy Moore. I was a huge fan of his. There were some songwriter open mike gigs at the International Bar with lots of people like Paddy Casey and Glen Hansard and Mundy and Christy came in the odd time and he saw me and he came up to me afterwards and said I love what you are doing and he took my number.
“The next day I got a call and was talking to him for about ten minutes then he started laughing and it was my brother Emmet pretending to be f***ing Christy Moore.
“Then a few days later he really did call me and I almost thought it was me brother again and was going to tell him to ‘f**k off!’ but he asked me to play at The Point Depot with him in front of 8,000 people.
“I was terrified. I was walking along and I was shaking and actually thought of walking under a small car to get me leg broken, so I wouldn’t have to do the show. I was so scared. When I was out on stage I was terrified and my leg was shaking and some woman in the front shouted out ‘Yiz are like Elvis’. But it turned out great.
“Then I got to sing with Shane MacGowan and Sinead O’Connor and The Dubliners – so I ended up singing with all my heroes.”
You are performing at The Roundhouse in London on St Patrick’s Day, tell us a little about that.
“We are playing the Roundhouse on Paddy’s Day (Damofleadh) and we will have a big band with John and with most of what was Sinead O’Connor’s last touring band and we have Beoga, a traditional group from Antrim, who have been playing with Ed Sheeran. I want to make it like a fleadh and do it on the Saturday nearest to Paddy’s Day every year and make an event of it. It will be great.
What else are you up to for 2018?
We are going to be touring with The Great Irish Songbook Tour playing all the great Irish songs of The Dubliners and The Pogues, with some of my own thrown in. Those songs are too good not to be sung.”
For more info visit: damiendempsey.com